A key Constitution Center backer has small-town Michigan roots

Richard and Helen DeVos at the Amway Center arena, home of DeVos' Orlando Magic of the NBA.
Richard and Helen DeVos at the Amway Center arena, home of DeVos' Orlando Magic of the NBA. (Orlando Sentinel)
Posted: November 27, 2012

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. - The drive from Amway's World Headquarters to Windy Hill, the company founders' estate, takes less than five minutes up a country road. Stone pillars flank the iron-gated entrance. The driveway curves around tennis courts and landscaped gardens, where petunias still bloom in mid-November.

A young woman answers the door and leads the way through a glass-walled hallway overlooking a man-made waterfall tumbling rapturously down a rock wall into a clear pool. At the end of the wing is the sunroom, an aerie perched on hills that descend to the Thornapple River, a wide indigo swath tracing its course through the valley.

No wonder Richard DeVos never left home.

It was here, almost 70 years ago, that he and his high school friend Jay Van Andel made a pact to start a business. After a few misadventures, they founded Amway, which today operates in more than 60 countries and generates nearly $11 billion in annual sales.

DeVos shuffles into the room, supported on each side by aides holding him by the elbows. He is impeccably groomed, his starched blue-and-white-striped Ralph Lauren oxford tucked neatly into his trousers. As they ease him into an armchair, he explains: "I move slowly. Bad knees."

Knees are the least of it.

In the course of his 86 years, he has survived a near-drowning at sea in a sinking sailboat, a tour of duty in the Army Air Corps during World War II, a heart transplant, and two strokes, the most recent just last summer.

He keeps going, though.

The night before, he had flown on his private jet to New York City to see Scandalous on Broadway.

The critics called the play "uninspired" and "generic," but DeVos enjoyed it. Positivity is one of the guiding principles in all aspects of his life, family, and work.

"The culture we try to develop is looking for the good in others," he says. Then, arching his owlish white eyebrows, he wisecracks, "Even in Democrats."

DeVos' Republican credentials and Christian conservatism are well-known. A close friend of President Gerald R. Ford's, DeVos once served as finance chairman of the Republican National Committee and has contributed to efforts to ban gay marriage.

But in 2001, when he was looking to invest in a good cause, DeVos says, his intention was patriotic, not partisan. He contacted Amway's representative in Washington, asking whether he knew of any project that deserved support. It was then he learned about plans for a National Constitution Center.

"That really intrigued us," DeVos says. "We were gung-ho Americans. Still are. We fought for freedom. It was our big deal."

He and his wife flew East to meet with Sen. Arlen Specter's wife, Joan, the center's fund-raiser at the time. Soon after, he pledged $10 million to help launch the museum.

"Rich got it," recalls Vince Stango, the center's interim president and chief executive. Stango, who has been with the institution almost since its inception, says DeVos immediately embraced the mission and has never imposed his political views.

"His focus has always been about getting more Philadelphians and more Americans involved. His belief was immediate that this was important, and his support has been unwavering for the last 11 years."

DeVos has been a wealthy, powerful, and worldly man for a very long time. He owns the Orlando Magic basketball team. He and his sons have competed in sailing's America's Cup. His generous donations to political campaigns and ideological causes earn him boardroom deference and national influence.

But like the elegant Amway Grand Plaza Hotel in Grand Rapids, built on bedrock to withstand the fierce rivers around it, DeVos remains grounded in western Michigan, where the first question folks tend to ask when they meet you is, "What church do you go to, and are you married?" His affection for small-town life is not merely nostalgic.

Drivers crossing the city line into Grand Rapids on Route 131 are greeted by a billboard for the Helen DeVos Children's Hospital, named for his wife. A heartbeat later is a sign for DeVos Place. The name appears everywhere in and around downtown. Streets. Schools. Monuments. Museums. A sports stadium. A music hall.

Around here, everyone knows the story of how DeVos, a poor kid from Ada, a mud-hole town and former trading outpost 12 miles east of the city, went into business with Van Andel, son of a local car dealer. How together they built Amway into a multibillion-dollar empire based on sales of vitamins and soap, but mostly the pitch that with hard work and a little help from friends, almost anyone can achieve the American dream.

"Amway has always been open," says DeVos. "You don't even need an education. . . . Our business is the freest of them all. We will teach you. We will train you. And we will help you and give you a personal mentor."

DeVos' belief in the principles of self-reliance is as profound as his Protestant faith. He credits both for his good fortune, and above all, the constitutional freedoms that allowed him to act on them.

In 2001, after writing the initial check to the center, he says, "I went to the first board meeting. If I'm going to give money, I want to know what they are doing with it."

He was wary about the people he would meet, he says, expecting "the stuffiness of the well-educated elite." Instead, he found the natives amiable and warm (although he noted they have a peculiar tendency to knock their own city). His tenure on the board has been extended, and he returns regularly to attend meetings.

"The people of Philadelphia have been a nice surprise," he says.

He has given a further $3 million to the center over the years, with more to come, he promises. That money, he says, "is some of the best we've spent." The center's main exhibit room is named for him and his wife of 59 years, who at 85 remains active in philanthropy.

The family continues to grow, with 16 grandchildren and a second great-grandchild on the way. And it appears, DeVos says, that both Amway and the Constitution Center are in their blood.

In January, the youngest of the DeVos' four children, Doug, 48, was elected chairman of the executive board. He also has succeeded his father and older brother, Dick, as co-CEO of Amway, a position he shares with Van Andel's son Steve.

The DeVos men, says Stango, "represent a dying breed of American patriots."

But not dead yet.

They are trying to develop partnerships with other museums, think tanks, and institutions to extend the Constitution Center's reach, perhaps expand the board.

The recent Bruce Springsteen exhibit failed to generate the revenue the center had hoped for, and the 2013 budget anticipates the need to eliminate about 10 percent of the center's jobs.

"Everyone has their own museums. . . . The struggle for money in all these organizations is perpetual," DeVos says. "I've been asked, 'Why are you spending money in Philadelphia?' I tell them, 'Because I want to.' "

The challenge, he says, is to sustain the center with "renewal and relevancy. It's been a long war. A long battle of informing the American people about where they come from. You can drag the kids there, but you can't drag the adults. How do you reach these people?"

Contact Melissa Dribben

at 215-854-2590 or mdribben@phillynews.com.

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